California’s Most Eclectic Novelty Architecture

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© Jim Heimann Collection, Courtesy Taschen

Shoes, donuts and grand pianos: a newly reissued Taschen tome charts the craziest buildings on America’s west coast

California: known for its architecture, but not for its good taste. As documented and celebrated by author Jim Heimann in Taschen’s re-issue of California Crazy, the ‘Golden State’ has built its image on having the biggest, boldest and most brash of everything. First published nearly four decades ago, Heimann’s ode to American pop architecture is an exciting anthology of the west coast’s eccentric approach to roadside and attraction architecture. While the motives behind the construction of these chaotic, kitsch structures is pretty clear – nothing makes you hungry for sugar like a 30-foot doughnut looming on the horizon – the author uses the pages of California Crazy to explain how these overgrown billboards become icons of American architecture.

In the latter parts of the 19th century, Chamber of Commerce boosters, railroad developments and the emergence of Californian real estate supported a series of land booms that continued for more than 100 years. During this time California was transformed, but without much apparent local history it was up to incoming groups to define the horizons they met. Encouraged by the potential of this relatively untouched region, people arrived in great numbers, borrowing or bringing with them architectural influences from an encyclopaedic roster of movements around the world. Driven by a desire to start new communities with fresh, contemporary identities, arrivals to the west coast set about creating their own landscape, strewn with effigies of economic intention.

While the most instantly recognisable shots from California Crazy are those of roadside restaurants and cartoon gas stations, these were not the grotesque wonders that defined the beginning of this architectural tirade. Prior to the arrival of the automobile, residents of the area became accustomed to a more sedate assortment of satirical aberrations. Reviving historic periods became the norm for commercial ventures, particularly as the Mission Style became fashionable in the 1880s. Faking a local history that simply never was, transit stations, shops and schools adopted their aesthetic identity from a romantic (but non-existent) past, shovelling hollow narratives into the gaping holes of the state’s heritage.

As the decades rolled on and into the 20th century, the Arts and Crafts movements injected westernised versions of Asian style into the landscape, with California’s apparent lack of requirement for historical context making it the perfect blank canvas for experimental architecture. Commentating on this uninhibited urban development, in 1922 the Los Angeles Times reacted to the construction of a downtown apartment building that claimed to be the first to adapt early Aztec architecture to modern structural designing. “Los Angeles is noted for the diversity of architecture entering the planning of its building, the types of design here being almost as cosmopolitan as the populations.”

In the 40 years since it was first published, Heimann’s bible of oddball buildings has opened many eyes to the fascinating catalysts behind an architectural subculture that is widely ignored by traditional academics. For some, California Crazy was the inspiration needed to start their own research, meaning that this timely re-issue features a number of previously unpublished photographs.

California Crazy is out now, pubished by Taschen.